Toronto·FIFTH ESTATE

SIU clears police officers in the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet

Ontario's Special Investigations Unit has cleared five Toronto police officers of wrongdoing in the death of 29-year-old Regis Korchinski-Paquet, the agency that investigates all serious injuries and deaths involving police, announced Wednesday.

29-year-old's father 'absolutely disgusted' by report as his lawyers say criminal liability possible

The family of Regis Korchinski-Paquet said they will continue to pursue justice, even though Ontario's Special Investigations Unit has cleared police of all wrongdoing in her death. Her father, Peter Korchinski, right, said he felt the SIU was not fully transparent with his family. (Andy Hincenbergs/CBC)

Ontario's Special Investigations Unit has cleared five Toronto police officers of wrongdoing in the death of 29-year-old Regis Korchinski-Paquet, it announced Wednesday.

The family of the Toronto woman and their lawyers, however, say they will continue to pursue justice and believe the officers should have faced criminal charges.

The agency, known as the SIU, which investigates incidents involving police in which death or serious injury occurs, launched an investigation after Korchinski-Paquet fell to her death from her 24th-floor apartment balcony on May 27 while police were in her home.

That day, her mother, Claudette Beals Clayton, posted a video online, stating that she believed police officers pushed Korchinski-Paquet off the balcony.

"The police killed my daughter, came into my apartment and shoved her off the balcony," Beals Clayton said the day her daughter died.

Korchinski-Paquet died at age 29 after police were called to her apartment in Toronto. (Newediuk Funeral Home)

The SIU has closed its investigation into her death and cleared the officers. The Fifth Estate asked the SIU for comment but has not heard back.

"This is a very sad day for our family — for Regis, too," her father, Peter Korchinski, told The Fifth Estate's Mark Kelley.

"We need full transparency, and this has not been given to us. I'm very concerned about the SIU's decision and the public should be concerned as well. We remain steadfast in our pursuit for justice and the truth."

"We're absolutely disgusted with the outcome," her sister Renee Korchinski Beals said.

"Justice wasn't served today, but that doesn't mean we're going to stop fighting for my sister. They're wrong for their decision; they're absolutely wrong."

Officers tried to not 'startle': SIU

In a statement released Wednesday afternoon, SIU director Joseph Martino said he concluded there were no reasonable grounds to believe any of the five officers who were in or around the apartment had committed a criminal offence. 

"There were allegations in the wake of Ms. Korchinski-Paquet's death that she was pushed off the balcony by the police. The evidence establishes that this did not occur," Martino said in his statement. 

"Instead, the evidence indicates that no one other than Ms. Korchinski-Paquet was on the balcony when she scaled over the railing and attempted to sidestep along the outer ledge over to her neighbour's balcony, lost her balance and fell."

A metal partition separated Korchinski's balcony from the next balcony. The neighbour's balcony was surrounded by metal netting, as well. (Ontario SIU)

The director said he found no grounds for criminal liability over the police's decision to leave Korchinski-Paquet alone on the balcony. He did not find the police officers erred in their decision to not call the Toronto police's Mobile Crisis Intervention Team.

"In their SIU interviews, some officers indicated withdrawal was pursued so as not to do anything that could startle or further provoke Ms. Korchinski-Paquet, who was at the time in a very precarious position perched on a narrow ledge on the outer aspect of the balcony railing 24 storeys in the air," Martino wrote.

Police 'might have acted more proactively': SIU

He said the officers tried to de-escalate but were unsuccessful.

"There is no suggestion of an undue show of force by the officers or unnecessarily aggressive behaviour in tone or movement," Martino said. "Arguably, they might have acted more proactively in the penultimate moments of the incident by venturing onto the balcony.

"That said, the concern that doing so might worsen the situation was not without merit. On this record, I am satisfied on balance that the officers did not transgress the limits of care prescribed by the criminal law."

Renee Korchinski Beals said she and her family will continue to demand answers and believe that what happened to her sister wasn't right. (Andy Hincenbergs/CBC)

Martino said that that policy prevented officers from calling on additional mental health support due to the reported presence of a knife in the apartment. He also concluded that officers did not suspect her to be suicidal, and thought she was trying to go to the next apartment.

Martino released his findings in a detailed report and video statement that said the SIU had notified the family and the police officers. 

However, at the same time as Martino released his report, her family members were inside the SIU's headquarters in Mississauga, Ont., for a briefing. Korchinski-Paquet's brother, father and sister, as well as their three lawyers, attended.

Family's lawyers say criminal liability possible

In a press conference later Wednesday, the family's lawyer, Knia Singh, said he found Martino's report "disappointing" and missing key elements. He said that he believes police had a duty of care to Korchinski-Paquet and should have intervened when she was on the balcony.

He noted that Martino found the situation could have called for officers to try to "coax or physically pluck" Korchinski-Paquet from the balcony before she fell. The SIU director also said that decision was "open to legitimate scrutiny."

Family members and their lawyers discussed the results following the SIU briefing on Wednesday. From left: The Fifth Estate's Mark Kelley, lawyers Knia Singh and Kyle Corbin, father Peter Korchinski, lawyer Viviene Younger, brother Reece Korchinski Beals and sister Renee Korchinski Beals. (Andy Hincenbergs/CBC)

"That statement indicates that there is potential liability here," Singh said. "The legal team and the family believe there was a duty of care from the moment the officers crossed that threshold into the apartment."

Singh also pointed to the recent Ontario Human Rights Report on systemic racism in policing, and noted that the intersection of race and mental health "creates less discretion for people of colour and higher incidents of violence."

He said that Korchinski-Paquet did not have mental illness but suffered from seizures that caused erratic behaviour. He said that by the time police arrive, she had calmed down.

"Without a doubt, without them going in there, Regis would be with us today," Singh said.

Shouldn't have been allowed near balcony: lawyer

After Korchinski-Paquet's death, the family hired a team of lawyers, including former SIU director Howard Morton, who conducted their own investigation.

Earlier this summer, Morton told the media that, based on the evidence he had seen to that point, he supported criminal charges for the officers "who burst into the apartment."

Singh, left, with lawyer Howard Morton, centre, and Peter Korchinski prepare for a news conference. (CBC)

Today, after his meeting with the SIU, Morton said he became more firmly entrenched in that belief. He said he now believes one or more officers could have been charged with failure to provide the necessaries of life or criminal negligence causing death.

"With that many officers in there, concerned as they were about knives and everything else and harm to people, to permit her to be anywhere close to ... the balcony door is clearly, at least in my view, criminal negligence," Morton said.

Second autopsy

The legal team's investigation included ordering a second autopsy that identified a shoulder bruise caused by blunt force trauma that occurred before her fall.

"There are marked differences in the description and the recording of injuries," between the first and second autopsies, Singh said. "There were pre-fall injuries that were not elaborated on in the first report."

It also found that a bone in the throat, the hyoid bone, was missing by the time the second pathologist did another autopsy.

A fracture in the hyoid bone can be suggestive of strangulation. The original Ontario Coroner's report stated the bone was not broken. Because the bone was missing, the second pathologist could not verify that finding.

The legal team's investigation is ongoing, he said.

'We tried our best': Police

Toronto interim police Chief Jim Ramer told a news conference Wednesday afternoon that officers acted within their training.

"I think we tried our best on that day, and we'll examine everything again to see if we can do better," he said.

The force is launching its own internal investigation, as is standard policy, into what happened and to consider if mental health policies should change.

"Although our officers were cleared, a finding I fully stand behind, there is no win in this tragic situation for anyone," Ramer said.

"A young woman lost her life. Her family lost their daughter, sister and cousin, and the service again offers its deepest sympathies. This is a profound event for the officers involved and the Toronto Police Service."

The Toronto Police Association, the union that represents officers, issued a statement that thanked the public for their patience in waiting for the investigation's results and its members for their professionalism while under increased scrutiny.

WATCH | Toronto's interim police chief responds to report:

Interim Toronto Police Chief James Ramer said although the officers were cleared of wrongdoing in the death of 29-year-old Regis Korchinski-Paquet, "there is no win in this tragic situation for anybody." 0:35

'Narrow' task

The SIU director said investigators interviewed all six officers who were in or around the Korchinski apartment at the time that she died, as well as 15 civilian witnesses, including her mother and brother.

Investigators also reviewed five 911 calls, security camera video, police records and two post-mortem reports. 

Korchinski-Paquet's death triggered large anti-police protests across the country, with thousands taking to the streets demanding justice for her.

Her death came just two days after George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer, with that timing connecting her death with the worldwide movement against police brutality.

"I accept that systemic racism exists and continues to challenge the relationship between racialized communities and the institutions of our justice system, just as it does in other sectors of society," Martino said. "However, the task before me was a narrow one."

He said that his job was to identify any criminal wrongdoing, which he did not find, rather than to look at systemic racism in the police force. He did note that Korchinski-Paquet is a member of the Black and Indigenous communities.

Korchinski-Paquet was on the phone with her father moments before she fell, Martino said, noting that her family said she told police that her father was white in an attempt to "court favour."

Thousands of people marched along downtown Toronto streets, calling for justice for Korchinski-Paquet. (Michael Charles Cole/CBC)

Returned to apartment

According to a timeline in Martino's report, officers arrived at the apartment building shortly before 5:30 p.m. and were met by Korchinski-Paquet in the hallway outside her apartment. Martino said she was yelling at the time. His investigation found she said her brother had assaulted her.

Her mother later told officers that her daughter had had seizures and knocked over a television when her brother refused to turn down the volume. Another witness, the SIU said, alleged Korchinski-Paquet had grabbed knives from the kitchen.

The SIU director's report said Korchinski-Paquet backed away from officers onto the balcony. (Ontario SIU)

She was allowed back into the apartment to use the washroom, the report found, while being accompanied by the officer who became the main subject of the investigation.

At that point, the investigation determined that her mother requested officers take her to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and said Korchinski-Paquet had suffered from seizures earlier that day. 

Korchinski-Paquet then called her father on her cellphone from the bathroom. Officers reported that she argued with her father and refused to discuss the seizures.

'She backed away from the officers'

"Instead, she backed away from the officers, toppled a standup portable air conditioning unit by the balcony door and exited through the door onto the balcony," the SIU report said, adding that she held the door shut with her body weight.

"Very quickly, Ms. Korchinski-Paquet scaled the balcony railing and the [officer] lost sight of her."

Another officer then stated, "She's jumping balconies."

At that point, according to Martino's report, an officer sent everyone out of the apartment and knocked on a neighbour's door, but there was no answer. The officer then went back to the balcony and saw a metal partition dividing the balconies that would make it impossible for anyone to cross over. 

"Believing Ms. Korchinski-Paquet had nowhere to go, he looked down and saw her body on the ground below," the SIU director said in his report.

Family says woman yelled, 'Mom, help'

The family's lead counsel, Singh, said that the family insists that before she fell, they heard her yell, "Mom, help. Mom, help. Mom, help," three times.

The SIU director said he was unable to determine "whether these words were, in fact, uttered." He said the officers' microphones did not pick that up, nor did the officers say they heard such words.

Hundreds gathered outside Korchinski-Paquet’s apartment building at 100 High Park Ave. for the memorial on July 25. (Talia Ricci/CBC)

"There is indication, however, that Ms. Korchinski-Paquet, while on the phone with her father, did ask him to help her," Martino said in his statement.

When family members tried to enter the apartment, they said an officer prevented them from entering.

They learned shortly after that Korchinski-Paquet had fallen from the balcony to her death.

Have a tip on this story? Contact the Fifth Estate team at rachel.ward@cbc.ca.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

With files from Mark Kelley and Ronna Syed

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